The pandemic is changing habits — and we’re all embracing takeout like never before. While fast-food chains were always set up for takeout, other restaurants had to quickly adapt their business model to pay the bills. Fine-dining restaurants that previously relied on dine-in patrons are forced to now reimagine their food to offer an upscale dining experience to-go.
Hana in Toronto’s ritzy Yorkville neighbourhood offers one the best modern Kyō-kaiseki (Kyoto-style cuisine) dining experiences in the city. Chef Ryusuke Nakagawa’s food does a dance between modern and traditional — and pre-COVID, his preparation and presentation of each dish was so meticulous. Clearly, I had to see if the takeout experience shared the same sentiment. I opted for the duck salad, which costs $45. Expensive compared to fast-food takeout, but quite on par in terms of fine-dining prices.
Let’s start with the packaging. The duck salad comes in a glistening, cherry-coloured, faux mahogany keepsake box from Japan, which adds an instant sophistication to the experience. From afar, you wouldn’t believe it’s not real wood. Once the lid is removed, your eyes are drawn to the variety. The dish is made with over a dozen ingredients that are all visible and vibrant. The star of the show is the ribbons of duck which Hana is not frugal about in this salad.
Where do I even start? In a dish with so many ingredients, I like to try each one individually to get a sense of taste and texture separately. Essentially, I give each ingredient its own attention. It’s important to note that the duck salad’s veggies vary depending on the season. When I tried this in December 2020, this is what I had.
The duck is marinated in akamiso (red miso) and is slightly charcoal-grilled. It’s soft and buttery. The salad also has delicious carrot kinpira (julienned vegetables that are braised in a sauce made of soy and sugar), shungiku leaves (slightly bitter, yet delicate leafy greens) and maitake mushrooms, blanched and boiled in a dashi-based broth.
Ingredients that were new to me include: ginkgo (nuts that comes from a ginkgo tree and taste like edamame), golden beets (which are much sweeter than the red ones) and kikka kabura (a flower-shaped turnip). Other characters that make up the salad include daikon, radish sprouts, red cabbage, persimmons (because they’re in season), lotus roots, figs and the most finely sliced limes that complimented every bite.
The Sour Notes
This salad is made with a variety of vinegars: saffron vinegar, tosa vinegar, sweet vinegar and more. I can say with confidence, I never once made a dramatic sour face the way babies do when trying a lemon for the first time.
This dish could have gone terribly wrong given the amount of acidity in it. Ninety per cent of the vegetables were marinated with acidic notes, yet the duck stood up to it all.
I think one of the ways the chef was able to control the acidity is by his masterful knife skills, which Japanese chefs are known for. You’ll notice the dish is full of vegetable that are sliced, diced, julienned, fine-julienned and chiffonade cut. The cutting technique affects flavour. The more finely cut a vegetable, the more marinade it can absorb, which mean the chef is able to maintain a balanced flavour.
Although the shiso flower buds make a very pretty garnish, next time I would politely put them to the side. They have a very strong, lingering herb flavour that I could easily do without. I see why it would work well in a cocktail.
Overall, if you like duck, this is a must-have. You won’t be disappointed with the portion, presentation or palatableness.
Photos courtesy of Deepi Harish